Or at least, the first act of it is. The whole Tatooine sequence is filled with this sense of weird menace that you don’t often see. The closest thing to it I can think of is the 1968 Planet of the Apes, with its constant danger and frighteningly primitive music cues.
Pretty much everywhere on Tatooine but the Lars moisture farm just oozes peril. And it’s all so incredibly strange. I’ve already commented on the unsettling desert-gimp appearance of the Sand People, but it doesn’t stop there. Though the Jawas don’t seem like much of a physical threat, they’re still really creepy. With their gibbering little voices and glowing eyes, they’re like some kind of weird sci-fi faerie-folk, just waiting to spirit unsuspecting droids off into their cavernous slab-trucks to god-knows-what fate. And the Cantina! I know that George Lucas has never been satisfied with the scene because so many of the costumes were taken from other films, but it’s creepily effective nonetheless. The film’s original aliens are weird, yes, some of them extremely so…
…but the inclusion of stuff like Devil Guy here…
…only adds an extra touch of “what the fuck?” to the scene that puts it right over the top.
That Our Heroes meet Han Solo against this backdrop adds a nice touch of uncertainty to that character, too. Will he be an ally, or will he sell them out to the Empire first chance he gets? That doubt is only made stronger by his confrontation with the bounty hunter Greedo, where Han shoots the alien scumbag from under the table and coldly tosses the bartender a few coins to smooth things over for making a mess.
Non-Machete Aside: Yes, Han shot first. Tired argument by this point, but especially worth making in this context. Lucas has argued that if Han shoots first, he’s a cold-blooded killer. To which I can only reply… Yes! That’s the whole point! The killing of Greedo ratchets up the tension in the short term, and in the long term makes Han’s redemption a mirror for that of the whole galaxy. This is what even good men have been reduced to under Imperial rule. So Han starts out as a man with blood on his hands, comes back to save his friend’s life, finds the love of a good woman, suffers for his sins, and finally plays a vital role in the battle that breaks the Empire’s back. It’s a great character arc that allows the Rebellion’s loftier philosophical goals to play out in human form. And having Greedo shoot first diminishes it. End of rant.
The sense of danger doesn’t end when Our Heroes leave Tatooine. Oh, it flattens out eventually, as the movie enters into more recognizably swashbuckling adventure serial action. But first, there’s the Empire to contend with. Lucas does a nice job establishing them as terrifying fascist bastards. Actually calling their shock troops Stormtroopers is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, but hell… everything about them screams evil. They’re bigger on the ridiculous super-villainy than I’d ever really considered. The Stormtrooper helmets have sort of a death’s head thing going on, for instance…
…and I don’t know why it never occurred to me before just how ostentatious it is that they call their ships-of-the-line Star Destroyers (!). And that’s not even getting into the hubris of building something called a DEATH STAR. Because I first encountered these names as a kid, I’ve always just accepted them at face value. But holy crap! The Empire is, like, Ming the Merciless levels of evil. Grandiose, Doctor Doom style evil. Hysterical.
And yet, also terrifying. And that’s primarily because of one scene: Darth Vader interrogating Princess Leia. That’s some harsh shit. The torture droid floats into the room, there’s a close-up on the hypodermic needle, then the door to her cell slams down hard, and the camera pans away, following the armored boots of the Stormtroopers as they march off down the steel grating of the hallway outside. It’s great punctuation at the end of a scene that’s already pretty horrifying, and it establishes exactly how vile these bastards are in the space of about 30 seconds.
Non-Machete Aside: How much more awful is that scene with the knowledge that Vader is unknowingly torturing his own daughter? Gah!
I’m also fascinated by the political discussions that go on within the Imperial High Command. The Emperor has “dissolved the Senate” (with acid, perhaps?), and clamped the iron boot of Imperial rule down on the galaxy’s throat. With their ultimate weapon complete, the Empire can cast off whatever shreds of democracy are left in their society, trusting in their ability to rule by fear. It’s a short conversation, but it makes me want to know more about Imperial politics.
Non-Machete Aside: I know, I know. Be careful what you wish for. I’m the odd bird who actually enjoys the politics of the prequel films, though, so having just a little bit more of it in Star Wars itself wouldn’t hurt my feelings.
There’s also a discussion of the Jedi religion in that scene, and…
Okay, this is going to be impossible to discuss fully in Machete Mode, so this will be a bit of a mix. In light of what comes later, I’m really fascinated by this aspect of the Imperial boardroom stuff. It’s clear that Palpatine has done a thorough job discrediting the Jedi at this point. That’s to be expected in his High Command, I suppose, but even Han thinks they’re a joke, and he’s probably old enough to remember when they were still active.
Even more interestingly, Palpatine himself still isn’t out as a Force-user at this point, even to his top military brass. I’m not even sure Tarkin knows, and Tarkin can give orders to Vader! Now, in the real world of film production, I think that’s because Lucas hadn’t decided that Palpatine was actually a Sith Lord at this point. But, big deal. If you’re just dealing with the story as it’s presented (which is more fun, to me), that’s a really interesting detail. It shows how much faith Palpatine had in the Death Star, and how fragile he thought his rule was until it was complete. But now I really am reading too much in, so I’ll move on.
I was also struck by several things on the production side on this “clear mind” viewing. The dialogue, for example, is pretty wretched. I knew that already, but… Ouch. The story about Harrison Ford telling Lucas “You might be able to write this stuff, but we sure as hell can’t say it” might be apocryphal, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right. It’s not all bad, of course, and some of it is saved by very good acting. James Earl Jones can make just about anything sound cool, and Alec Guinness sells it through sheer class. His “crazy old wizard” voice is musical. And absolutely hysterical. But in a good way.
And Peter Cushing. Ooooh, holy crap Peter Cushing. I have a friend who, as a child, found Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin far scarier than Darth Vader, and I can understand why.
That is a scary dude. He’s also the only guy who gets to order Vader around. But the clincher for me is this: when he threatens Alderaan with destruction unless Leia gives up the location of the Rebel base, you know he’s going to blow it up anyway. But Cushing still manages to make it hurt. That’s good villain acting.
The sets impressed me more than they had before, as well. Everything looks “lived in.” The Tatooine stuff especially, but the Rebel base looks like a place people actually use, too. The Death Star less so, but I can forgive the lack of verisimilitude there. They just built the thing, after all. Of course, they had managed to pick up some kind of garbage monster already, so maybe I’m being too kind. The Death Star interiors make up for their sterility with mood, though. As another friend pointed out, some of those sets could almost have come out of a Hammer horror flick (as could many of the actors).
Let’s see… What other insights can I steal from my friends…? Ah, yes! The unconventional opening! It’s not often that you see a movie wait twenty or thirty minutes to introduce the hero, but Star Wars does it. Even stranger, you spend most of that time with a couple of robots, one of whom only speaks in a series of beeps and tweets. I’m not sure if I should hold Star Wars in higher esteem for making such choices, or hold other films in contempt for not doing it. Probably a bit of both.
At any rate. The reason the Artoo and Threepio opening works is because… Well, it works because they’re a freaking hunter-killer comedy team, made all the more impressive because only one of them talks. But it also works because Lucas looked at them not as “robots” but as “characters.” This, I suspect, goes a long way toward explaining why Star Wars works so well in general: human, robot, or alien, the principle cast are characters first and foremost. This may also explain why some of the later films don’t work as well as this first one. But we’ll see when we get there.